I received a phone call yesterday afternoon from my brother who lives in Pennsylvania. Getting a call from him in the middle of the day is unusual since he runs his own business (nuisance trapping -- you know bats in the attic, raccoons rummaging through your garbage cans, voles digging up your yard )and seldom has time to chat during the work day. However, he was eager to tell me (the family’s “safety maven” ) about a crash he had just witnessed and the circumstances leading up to it. (Let me add that he called from his cell phone while sitting in a parking lot.)
“I was following this woman for about ten minutes and she was doing the head bob,” he said. “It was pretty obvious she was texting because she kept looking down. Plus, she’d speed up and then slow down for no apparent reason and failed to go when the light we were both waiting at turned green.”
“I kept my distance,” he continued, “and I’m glad I did, because the next thing I know she’s plowing into the back of the car in front of her. I saw it coming; she was looking down and then wham!"
My brother’s eye witness account of this driver’s obvious disregard for her safety as well as the safety of others on the road is not unique. In fact, I’ve shared the road -- and I’m sure you have as well -- with many “head bobbing” motorists who simply refuse to put down their iPhones, Droids, Blackberries or other mobile devices. Sure there are laws banning texting and driving (Pennsylvania’s ban took effect March 8, while New Jersey’s has been in place since March of 2008) and widespread recognition that the practice is unsafe (82% of motorist recently surveyed by the AAA Clubs of New Jersey said texting is a serious distraction), but it persists at an alarming rate.
While many point to teens and young adult drivers as the primary culprits, older and more experienced drivers are guilty of the offense, too. According to a 2011 PublicMind poll of New Jersey motorists, one in four admit to texting while driving. For those of us who don’t want to share the road with distracted drivers, those aren’t good odds.
New Jersey, however, is getting tougher on motorists who text or talk on hand-held cell phones while driving. Last Thursday, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno signed the Kubert, Kulesh and Bolis bill into law. Named after five individuals who were seriously injured or killed by districted drivers (several of whom were teens), the bill makes it easier for prosecutors to charge a driver with assault by auto or vehicular homicide if he was talking or texting on a hand-held cell phone before a crash.
While the law doesn’t enhance the current cell phone/texting penalty ($100 fine, plus court costs and fees), it sends a clear message to motorists that this unsafe and “reckless” behavior is unacceptable and they’ll be held accountable for their actions. Under New Jersey motor vehicle statute, vehicular homicide is punishable by between 5 and 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000. Assault by auto, meanwhile, is punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Since I typically blog about teen driving, what’s the take-away here? It’s imperative that teens understand the awesome responsibility that comes with the privilege of obtaining a drivers license. If a drivers fail to take that responsibility seriously, he could hurt or not only kill himself, but others on the road. And in the case of the latter, he would be punished to the fullest extent of the law, which could mean jail time.
As parents, we must impress upon our novice drivers that the decisions they make while driving have a ripple effect and there are no “do-overs” when it comes to car crashes. So it’s also imperative that they understand the real danger associated with using a mobile device behind the wheel. While teens (and many older drivers, too) may think they can text and drive safely (a third of 18 to 24 year olds surveyed by NHTSA think they can take their eyes off the road for 3 to 10 seconds without it affecting their driving), they simply can’t. Consider this -- a driver traveling 55 mph who takes his eyes off the road for 4.5 seconds will travel approximately the length of a football field blind.
Want to drive this point home with your teen? Put him behind the wheel in an empty parking lot, tell him to close his eyes and then instruct him to step on the gas. I’m betting he’ll think you’ve lost your mind. (If he doesn’t, then he’s not ready to drive.) Distraction and inattention are the number one cause of teen crashes in our state. Yes a cell phone can be a lifesaver in the event of a vehicle breakdown or crash, but it becomes a deadly device when used while driving. Ensuring that our teens understand this and take it to heart (and parents, we must too), is absolutely essential.